Munshi Premchand: The Man Who Revolutionized Hindi Writing

By Sarita Boodhoo

* Born and brought up in the heartland of Bhojpuri
31st July marks the 131st birth anniversary of the great Hindi literary figure of modern times. It is therefore befitting to pay homage to him and refresh our memories with some light thrown upon his remarkable life, writings and the environment that shaped him.

It is Premchand’s sterling succinct and bitingly realistic creative writing in Hindi which gave it its aura of a respected and respectful language after Persian and Brajbhasha’s reign as court languages in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed he was known as the Emperor of the Hindi novel. Who was this man called Munshi Premchand? What is it that catapulted him to the forefront of the Hindi literary world in the first half of the 20th century? What makes his works so hauntingly compelling to read and gripping?

Today Premchand’s works are translated in several languages of the world. His books are prescribed in the syllabi of universities, not only Indian but the world over. His texts are prescribed in Hindi courses for SC, and HSC and other exams too in Mauritius.

Premchand’s real name was Dhanpat Rai. He was born in a small village called Lamhi, four miles off Benares, right in the Bhojpuri belt. One cannot help reflecting how many stalwarts of Hindi literature have as mother tongue Bhojpuri. The forerunner of Premchand Bhartendu, Harishchandra, also of Bhojpuri background born and brought up in Benares gave Hindi its modern character and shape. Others like Dr Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Dr Viveki Rai are great Hindi writers. Nearer to us, the great Hindi essayist and intellectual Dr Vidya Nivas Mishra, former Editor-in-chief of Hindustan, presided over several International Bhojpuri conferences, the first one ever held in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh in April 1995 as well as the one held in 2001 at the MGI in Mauritius. In fact he hails from Deoria, in the Bhojpuri terroir, for that matter.

Indeed, just as in Mauritius, Bhojpuri has nurtured these great Hindi writers. It is the base of Eastern Hindi or Bihari Hindi.

Premchand’s literature amongst others, reached Mauritius through the endeavours of the Nalanda Bookshop and Harry’s bookshop at the Central Market. Indeed, people would flock to the Nalanda Bookshop in the forties, fifties, sixties looking for Premchand’s novels and short stories. And they still do. It is indeed the reading of Premchand’s works which has had a great impact on internationally known Hindi writers of Mauritius such as Abhimanyu Unuth, Ramdeo Dheerundhur, Somduth Buckhory and the young Raj Heeramun. And Premchand’s writings fired the imagination of thousands. Premchand has also dedicated one of his short stories to the plight of the indentured Indian girmit entitled Shudra. For it should not be forgotten that he belonged to the belt from which large recruits for the plantation colonies were being undertaken.

It would surprise many to know that Premchand first started writing in Urdu under the pseudonym of Nawab Rai. In fact, he had learnt Urdu and Persian from the local “madrassa”.

Later, he attended the Christian missionary school in Benares. He had a great command of English. He would complete his BA much later at the age of 39. In between after his matriculation, he became a school master and later a sub-inspector of schools from which post he was to resign after 20 years of service in response to the Gandhian liberation movement and call for non-cooperation. Shortly afterwards, he devoted himself entirely to literary and journalistic pursuits. He became the first Principal of the Gandhian inspired and based university, The Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith in Benares which was inaugurated on 10 February 1921.

Premchand was a voracious reader and a keen observer of people and situations. He devoured hundreds of novels, be it in English, Hindi, Urdu or Persian. His favourite writers were EM Forster and Tolstoy. This exposure to literary works was to fire his imagination and incite his intellectual abilities. His second wife Shivrani Devi who had a penchant for literary activities also helped to develop the literary genius in him.

It was Premchand who, inspired by the Gandhian upsurge of patriotic fervour, actually made Hindi writing a thing of the people and for the masses. Instead of writing elaborate prose and poetry about kings and aristocrats he wrote of the life, problems and aspirations of the common man.

He suffered with them, wept with them, endured their trials and tribulations, marvelled at their struggles, sang their sense of courage and smiled with them even if it was a rare commodity for them. Premchand belonged to the poorest of the poor. He penetrated the village psyche as nobody else has done in the Hindi field. He drew inspiration from people all around him. He created some six thousand characters for his 350 short stories and fifteen major novels.

Premchand was a very busy man. He started his day at about four in the morning. From that time till noon was his “creative period”. He devoted his afternoons to editing work. During which time he edited his literary magazines such as Madhuri, Hans and Jagran. From seven to eleven in the evening, he would translate foreign literary works for a living.

His first Hindi novel Seva Sadan (Widow’s House) took the Hindi reading public by storm. His novel Rangbhoomi was based on Gandhian philosophy of non-violence and non-cooperation whereas Karmabhoomi reflects Premchand’s emotional involvement with the liberation movement.

If Premchand was unparalleled as a novelist in Hindi, it was as a short-story writer that he excelled. Mukti Marg, Idgah, Satranj Ke Khilari, Kafan are some of the finest examples of Premchand’s craftsmanship chiselled in touching short stories. He was the founder of a new trend in Hindi fiction, a trend that depicts with sincerity the realities of his time.

It would be interesting to note that he even tried a stint with Hindi filmmaking in Bombay. His first experiment was with his novel Seva Sadan. His script was however completely changed and mutilated to suit an industry preoccupied with Mammon. Filmland was not his world, he realized after spending some ten months in Bombay in 1934. His disenchantment with Seva Sadan, which was a flop, was a decisive factor for him to turn his back on Bombay and the film world for good.

However, some of his finest works nonetheless came during that period of his life in Bombay. Works like Kafan, Jurmana, Doodh Ka Dam, and his wonderful masterpiece Godan, (novel) was written in that period. His experience with the filmworld might have had some influence on the trend of his writing.

Premchand also spearheaded the progressive writers’ movement in India. He presided over the Lucknow writers’ conference in 1936 shortly before he died. He was also in close touch with Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi.

While in Bombay, Premchand wrote to his son Dhun about his and the other younger son Barun’s education in Allahabad about which he was deeply concerned. He wrote his letter in a remarkly chaste English, a copy of which was given to me by Dr Kamal Kishore Goënka well known Hindi critic and writer. Another inside story about his writings is that he wrote the synopsis of his works first in English and then developed them in Hindi. I had the privilege of going through some of these, some years back at the residence of Dr Kamal Kishore Goënka in Delhi. He is a Premchand specialist and has a huge collection of his works which he has brought out in several volumes.

Premchand died in 1936 and like many writers of ill health and steeped in debts. But he had immortalized the small man. And his son who is a professor of English has benefited from his father’s royalties.

* Published in print edition on 29 July 2011

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